Henry V (Blooms Shakespeare Through the Ages)

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Series: Bloom's Shakespeare Through the Ages

Bloom loves Falstaff even more than Shakespeare loved him. As much, perhaps, as Falstaff loves himself. And that's a lot. Falstaff, in effect, is a giant Rorschach on which we project the conflicts within our bodies -- and in our body politic -- over the pleasures of the flesh and the consequences of human frailty. Civilization and its discontents. Over the years it has often been a stage-vs. Bloom is a formidable exception less swayed by Falstaff's charm on the page. In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson sneered at him: ''The fat knight has never uttered one sentiment of generosity, and for all his power of exciting mirth, has nothing in him that can be esteemed.

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As recently as last year, a scholar writing in ''The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's History Plays'' frostily asserted that Falstaff comes to represent a world of ''degeneracy,'' that his ''presumptuous'' behavior and unconcern, even delight, at the death of others ''cannot be condoned. By contrast, Falstaff romanticizers over the centuries have made him the patron saint of Merrie Olde England, a mildly debauched Santa Claus at most. Or, more complexly, as Orson Welles did in his ''Henry IV'' film, ''Chimes at Midnight,'' Sir John becomes a melancholy tragic-comic figure, almost an analogue of Lear in his struggle to maintain a brave front in the face of age and mortality.

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Perhaps the most influential Falstaff of the modern age has been Ralph Richardson's version, whose emotional power transformed Harold Bloom. Richardson was ''the essence of playing in every sense of playing,'' Mr. Bloom says. I mentioned to Jack O'Brien that Mr. Bloom had once told me that seeing Richardson's Falstaff at age 16 had been a revelation, his initiation not just into the glories of Falstaff, but into those of all Shakespeare. O'Brien says tartly. Indeed, Mr. Bloom has taken Falstaff veneration one step further, from romance to rapture.

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In his best-selling book ''Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,'' he envisions Falstaff exhibiting a ''comprehensiveness of consciousness that puts him beyond us,'' a higher form of being, ''Immortal Falstaff. Bloom attacks those who criticize this reverential view as a cabal of ''academic puritans and professorial power freaks,'' prudes who fail to realize Falstaff's Bloomian transcendence, who fail to revere his life-affirming irreverence.

Most famously, Mr. Bloom has declared: ''Shakespeare essentially invented human personality as we continue to know and value it. Falstaff has priority in this invention. One scholar, speaking for many, has riposted that Mr.

Bloom has abstracted Falstaff from the web of relationships in the plays, inflated him to monstrous parade-float dimensions, ''like the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man in 'Ghostbusters,' '' striding through the skyscrapers. Bloom tells me. Far from abstracting from the relationships, he believes he sees more deeply into them: ''In the plays, Falstaff's major relationship is with Hal, whom he loves as the son he never had, the son who betrays him murderously.

Despite scholarly dissent, the success of Mr. Bloom's big book on Shakespeare has made his conception of Falstaff the one currently foremost in the mind of the reading public.

The one that a director like Jack O'Brien, and an actor like Kevin Kline, either have to bow to, rein in or otherwise grapple with. O'Brien is determined to resist what he sees as Mr. Bloom's uncritical worship of Falstaff, the reduction of the complexities and scope of Shakespeare's history plays to a focus on a single fat man, no matter how witty and alive he is. O'Brien and his long-time dramaturge and colleague, Dakin Matthews who made the one-evening compression of the two ''Henry IV'' plays that is the basis of the production at the Vivian Beaumont , both seem ready to joust with Mr.

Bloom's vision. O'Brien is a witty and versatile director: he has done Shakespearean and classical productions at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, while back East on Broadway he is best known for ''Hairspray'' and ''The Full Monty,'' although he also made a deeply affecting success of Tom Stoppard's arcane, scholarly drama ''The Invention of Love,'' a Lincoln Center Theater production in Talking to Mr. O'Brien early in the rehearsal period, while Kevin Kline is still searching the depths of Falstaff's character ''Kevin is looking for mushrooms in the basement with a flashlight'' is the way Mr.

O'Brien puts it , one gets the feeling that as much as Mr.

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O'Brien would like to wrest Falstaff from Mr. Bloom's conceptual grip, he's finding the charisma of the character hard to resist himself. O'Brien says of Falstaff. We're conversing, after the day's rehearsal, in a theater district restaurant called Angus McIndoe, next door to the theater that is home to ''The Producers,'' a show that demonstrates the enduring appeal of the corrupt but charming Falstaffian type: who was Zero Mostel in the original Max Bialystock role but a Jewish Falstaff?

With his own Bloom to boot. Falstaff and, by implication, Shakespeare ask: is there such a thing as a redemptive wickedness, a healthy subversive wickedness, and at what point does it stop being charming and become something worse? One thing people will discover about Mr. Kline, Mr. O'Brien says, is that ''Kevin can be very wicked in this role'' in a way that is a meditation on the ambiguous charms of wickedness.

Falstaff's disarming charm, his expansiveness, can crowd the other characters, however sharply etched, to the margins and make it a more one-dimensional affair, an affair with Falstaff rather than a consideration of the conflicting aspects of the human psyche on the vast stage of history. There are those who have argued that the ''Henry IV'' characters anticipated Freud's threefold division of the mind into id, ego and superego: Falstaff the embodiment of id and appetite, the honor-obsessed Hotspur embodying the superego, and Hal or sometimes his stern and guilt-ridden father, Henry IV the ego struggling to negotiate between appetite and restraint.

Jack O'Brien's role in the production is akin to that of the non-Falstaff characters in the play: they all try to rein in Falstaff's appetite for attention so that the play doesn't become one-dimensional, with roguish id devouring all else. There is so much more to the plays: the mercurial, Mercutio-like Hotspur here played by Ethan Hawke and the haunted and tormented King Henry Richard Easton, who compares the king to Claudius in ''Hamlet'' and of course Hal Michael Hayden , perhaps the most difficult and complex role of all.

The widely admired actor originally scheduled to play him, Billy Crudup, dropped out after the second week of rehearsals for ''personal reasons,'' it was said. Perhaps he's fortunate; it's a notoriously contradictory and unrewarding role. O'Brien tells me, ''is his protean quality: you know, when you read something and then you get it up onstage, it somehow changes and even though. If the address matches an existing account you will receive an email with instructions to retrieve your username. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation.

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Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. More filters. Sort order. Mar 18, Eunice rated it really liked it. Oh for the key passages! I wish the book had more of those kind of sections.